Tag Archives: Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch for sale?

A report today says that the Stratolaunch company, including its giant airplane Roc, are up for sale.

Sources say Vulcan Inc. is looking to sell Stratolaunch, the space venture founded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, and one report says the asking price could be as high as $400 million.

That price tag was reported today by CNBC, quoting unnamed sources who were said to be familiar with the discussions.

Vulcan had nothing new to say about Stratolaunch’s fate, which has been the subject of rumors for months. “Stratolaunch remains operational,” Alex Moji, manager of corporate communications at Vulcan, told GeekWire in an emailed statement. “We will provide an update when there is news to share.”

Since the sources are all anonymous, it is wise to not take the story too seriously. At the same time, it seems to fit with events since the death of Paul Allen.

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Stratolaunch flies!

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch’s giant two fuselage airplane Roc successfully launched on its first flight this morning.

It took off at 10 am Eastern, and as I write this the plane apparently is still in the air. Update: They have landed successfully, completing the first flight..

Below is video of the plane’s take off. This plane, the largest ever to fly, is quite impressive.

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Stratolaunch ends plan to build rockets for its giant Roc aircraft

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch has decided to cease work on the family of second stage rockets plus engine, announced in August and September 2018, that would have launched from the bottom of its giant Roc airplane.

Instead, they will only launch Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rockets from Roc.

This does not look good for the company. Roc is vastly oversized for Pegasus, which really doesn’t need it. It also suggests that the death of Paul Allen has had a bad effect on the company.

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Stratolaunch’s Roc airplane completes fastest taxi test

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch’s giant Roc airplane has successfully completed its fastest taxi test so far, traveling 90 miles per hour down a runway.

This is about two-thirds of the planned fastest taxi test speed, about 150 miles per hour. Once these tests are completed successfully, they will then finally attempt take-off.

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Paul Allen dead at 65

Paul Allen of Microsoft fame and the man behind Stratolaunch passed away today at the age of 65.

Allen ranked among the world’s wealthiest individuals. As of Monday afternoon, he ranked 44th on Forbes’ 2018 list of billionaires with an estimated net worth of more than $20 billion.

Through Vulcan, Allen’s network of philanthropic efforts and organizations, the Microsoft co-founder supported research in artificial intelligence and new frontier technologies. The group also invested in Seattle’s cultural institutions and the revitalization of parts of the city.

What this will mean for Stratolaunch of course cannot be predicted. Its design — using a giant airplane to air-launch payloads into orbit — is somewhat radical, a fact that generally requires the will and power of a single individual to force it to fruition. Allen’s absence here could make the completion of their effort much more difficult.

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Stratolaunch completes taxi test at 80 mph

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch this week completed a series of taxi tests with its giant airplane Roc, reaching speeds as much as 80 mph.

This is a little less than half the speed required for take-off. It also appears that they are proceeding very cautiously with these taxi tests, increasing the speed with each new test by small amounts, about 20 to 40 mph.

The big moment will of course be when this giant plane actually takes off. It appears that might happen within a month or so.

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Stratolaunch building its own rocket engine

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch yesterday revealed details about its PGA rocket engine that it is developing in house.

The hydrogen-fueled PGA will produce 200,000 pounds of liftoff thrust. “When you try to do something like single stage to orbit, or in our case air launch, you really have to have hydrogen performance to make it happen,” Jeff Thornburg, Stratolaunch’s vice president of propulsion engineering, told Aviation Week.

Stratolaunch says that 85 percent of the manufacturing process will take advantage of additive-manufacturing techniques, also known as 3-D printing. That’s aimed at reducing the cost of engine production. “The propulsion team is currently in the process of manufacturing and testing prototype subscale and full-scale hardware,” Stratolaunch says. “The team has completed ignitor development, with injector testing currently underway. After this is completed, the team will perform a full-scale preburner test by the end of 2018.”

The engine is being designed to power the rockets and manned ferry that they also plan to build to be launched from the bottom of their giant airplane Roc.

It is clear now that they could not find anyone else willing to build these upper stages, and are now building them themselves. This means that SpaceX, with its Big Falcon Rocket, is now not the only company building a completely reusable system for gaining access to space.

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Stratolaunch considering launching hypersonic rocket tests from its Roc airplane

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch is now considering building and launching hypersonic rocket test program using its giant Roc airplane.

In the concept study presented this week, Corda and his colleagues provide a detailed description of a delta-wing testbed plane called the Hyper-Z. It would be 83.4 feet long, with a wingspan of 32.4 feet and a launch weight of about 65,000 pounds.

Stratolaunch’s hydrogen-fueled PGA rocket engine would serve as the plane’s main propulsion system, but it could also be equipped with an air-breathing propulsion system, such as a scramjet engine. The flight profiles could accommodate a maximum speed of Mach 11, or a maximum altitude of 477,000 feet.

Hyper-Z would be launched from Stratolaunch’s mammoth twin-fuselage carrier airplane [Roc], which has a record-setting wingspan of 385 feet.

I must emphasize that this is only a concept proposal at this point. The company still has to verify the operation of Roc.

What this proposal does suggest to me is that the company is still struggling to find a profitable use for Roc, and customers to go along with it. This concept appears to be a lobbying effort to both the military and NASA, offering them Roc as a testbed for such flight tests.

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Stratolaunch to build its own upper stages

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch today announced that it is designing and building three differently-sized upper stage rockets to attach to the fuselage of its giant Roc airplane.

Beside the Pegasus rocket, owned by Northrop Grumman, aimed for first flight in 2020, Stratolaunch will build a medium and medium-heavy rockets, with the former set for a 2022 flight, as well as a fully reusable space plane, now in early development.

The space plane concept would apparently be capable of taking payloads up and down from orbit, and could therefore become the first totally reusable launch capability.

Overall, it does appear that the company, unable to find someone else to design its upper stage, has been forced to do it itself.

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More testing of “Roc,” Stratolaunch’s giant airplane

This past weekend Stratolaunch completed more tests on its giant airplane, now nicknamed “Roc.”

They had intended to do another taxi test, but didn’t for some reason. Instead, they did test fueling operations. full-power engine tests, and communication tests.

Their upcoming schedule appears to me to be very extended.

Stratolaunch executives laid out the test schedule for the plane, which was built by Mojave-based Scaled Composites, during a space conference in April. The company plans to follow up on the first two taxi tests (at runway speeds of 15 mph and 40 knots) with three more at speeds of 70, 85 and 120 knots.

The last speed is roughly what’s needed for takeoff.

After the fifth taxi test, Stratolaunch would put the plane into the air for a series of flight tests over the course of what’s expected to be 18 to 24 months. In April, executives said they were targeting the first flight test for this summer (which technically runs until Sept. 23).

They also have not yet announced any launch contracts, though there have been announcements that both Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus and Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne will fly on Roc.

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Stratolaunch still lacks a launch vehicle

In a news interview today about their plans for the next year or so, the CEO of Stratolaunch danced around the lack of a committed and appropriate rocket to act as a second stage for the giant airplane.

At the first flight event, we are going to talk a little bit about what is our suite of product offerings in terms of launch vehicles. We haven’t really talked much about that up until this point, but once we get the plane flying, we want to reveal to everyone exactly what we’re talking about. We have talked about the Pegasus system [from Orbital ATK] and we are going to launch the Pegasus on our first launch. It’s a very small rocket, but it’s a very good rocket, very reliable, which is one of the reasons we want to launch that first.

But it’s a 50,000 pound rocket. This plane can carry 550,000 pounds, so it’s an undersized rocket for the capabilities we’re talking about.

They hope this first launch will occur by summer of this year.

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Stratolaunch to make first flight later this year

Capitalism in space: Paul Allen said at a space conference today that Stratolaunch will likely make its maiden flight later this year.

Actual satellite launches will have to wait until around 2020, however, as the giant plane will first have to be certified by the FAA, a process expected to take one and a half to two years.

The profitability of this launch system at the moment remains an unknown. The only rocket presently set to launch on Stratolaunch is Orbital ATK’s Pegasus, which is designed to launch small to mid-size satellites. Stratolaunch will therefore have to compete with the slew of new smallsat rocket companies that should be becoming operational in the next two years. It will be interesting to see if this air-launched system will be able to compete with them.

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Stratolaunch completes initial taxi tests

This past weekend Stratolaunch successfully completed its second series of taxi tests, reaching a speed of 40 knots (46 miles per hour) as it moved down the runway.

[I]n December Stratolaunch capped off the year with a successful low-speed taxi test. During the taxi, the vehicle reached a top speed of 28 miles per hour (45 kilometers per hour) as it headed down the runway. Following the test, Aircraft Program Manager George Brugg stated, “This was another exciting milestone for our team and the program. Our crew was able to demonstrate ground directional control with nose gear steering, and our brake systems were exercised successfully on the runway. Our first low-speed taxi test is a very important step toward first flight.”

Last weekend, Sratolaunch kicked off 2018 with two days of additional taxi tests. Most notably, the tests included reaching the maximum taxi speed of 40 knots (46 miles per hour). According to Allen, these tests allowed the team to “verify control responses.”

There is a tiny 35 second video of this last test at the link.

The article provides a lot of details about Stratolaunch and its future, including the suggestion that the giant airplane could become the main launch platform for Orbital ATK’s Pegasus rocket. Pegasus presently has only one launch listed on its manifest, using its L1011 Stargazer airplane.

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Giant Stratolaunch plane conducts first taxi test

Capitalism in space: The giant Stratolaunch plane built out of two 747s completed its first taxi test yesterday.

Stratolaunch’s plane, nicknamed Roc, has the widest wingspan in the aviation world at 385 feet. That’s 50 percent wider than the wings of a Boeing 747 — which probably shouldn’t be surprising, considering that parts from two 747s went into building the plane. Mojave-based Scaled Composites aided in the fabrication of the plane’s carbon composite components.

I think a better way to illustrate the size of the wingspan is to note that if you laid a Saturn 5 rocket along those wings, it would not reach the tips at either end, being “only” 363 feet long.

Several experienced engineers at Behind the Black have previously wondered at whether the plane’s central structure holding its two fuselages together would be strong enough to provide a stable flight. Looking at the picture at the link, I must wonder the same thing.

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Stratolaunch tests engines on giant plane

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch announced today that it has successfully tested the six engines that will fly on the giant plane that it will use as a first stage.

This isn’t that big a deal, since the engines were built for the 747s that were scavenged by Stratolaunch to assemble their giant plane. If those engines didn’t work I would have been very surprised.

The most interesting part of this story is this:

Despite the plane’s giant size, Stratolaunch plans to initially use the aircraft as a platform for Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket, which is currently launched from a much smaller L-1011 airplane. The Stratolaunch plane will ultimately have the ability to carry three Pegasus rockets that could be launched one at a time on a single flight. An initial launch, the company said in May, could take place as early as 2019.

A recent deal could combine two of Stratolaunch’s partners. Scaled Composites, who developed the aircraft for Stratolaunch, is owned by Northrop Grumman, which announced Sept. 18 a deal to acquire Orbital ATK for $9.2 billion.

This might make Pegasus more affordable for smallsat launches, and provide those smallsat companies much greater launch flexibility. Moreover, the purchase of Orbital ATK by Northrop Grumman appears to work to the advantage of Stratolaunch.

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Stratolaunch unveils its giant mother ship

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch today finally revealed the giant airplane, the largest ever built, that it wants to use as a first stage for launching satellites cheaply into space.

From their webpage:

Over the past few weeks, we have removed the fabrication infrastructure, including the three-story scaffolding surrounding the aircraft, and rested the aircraft’s full weight on its 28 wheels for the first time. This was a crucial step in preparing the aircraft for ground testing, engine runs, taxi tests, and ultimately first flight.

Once we achieved weight-on-wheels, it enabled us to weigh the Stratolaunch aircraft for the first time, coming in at approximately 500,000 lbs. That may sound heavy, but remember that the Stratolaunch aircraft is the world’s largest plane by wingspan, measuring 385 ft. – by comparison, a National Football League field spans only 360 ft. The aircraft is 238 ft. from nose to tail and stands 50 ft. tall from the ground to the top of the vertical tail.

The Stratolaunch aircraft is designed for a max takeoff weight of 1,300,000 lbs., meaning it’s capable of carrying payloads up to approximately 550,000 lbs. As we announced last fall , we will initially launch a single Orbital ATK Pegasus XL vehicle with the capability to launch up to three Pegasus vehicles in a single sortie mission. We have already started preparations for launch vehicle delivery to our Mojave facilities. We’re actively exploring a broad spectrum of launch vehicles that will enable us to provide more flexibility to customers.

They plan to do ground tests throughout this year, aiming for a first flight test in 2019.

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Stratolaunch to fly in 2017?

The competition heats up: In an interview Paul Allen has revealed that he hopes to begin flight tests of his gigantic Stratolaunch airplane, the largest ever built, later this year.

No word on the rocket that this air-launched system would launch, however. In fact, it appears that no one seems interested in providing one. This could change once the plane is flying.

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Automated factory to build smallsats

The competition heats up: While this story focuses on the hiring of the former head of Stratolaunch by smallsat company York Space Systems, the real lead is how York is building an automated factory on a Denver college campus that will churn out smallsats.

Last week, York announced that it will partner with Metropolitan State University to open an automated manufacturing facility on the school’s Denver campus this year. The startup’s flagship product is the “S-Class” satellite platform, designed to carry payload masses up to 85 kilograms. Building 200 satellites per year would put the company at about a third the production rate of OneWeb Satellites, the ambitious joint venture of OneWeb and Airbus seeking to build three satellites a day for OneWeb’s planned constellation low-Earth-orbit communications satellites.

York has 33 satellite platforms requested through letters of intent and other agreements, about half of which are firm commitments to buy satellites once available, Dirk Wallinger, chief executive of the 10-person startup founded in early 2015, told SpaceNews.

York’s approach to satellite manufacturing is to have standardized spacecraft models essentially pre-built for prospective customers, who can then outfit their satellites as desired, Wallinger said.

For more than a half century, satellites have been hand-made, each unique and crafted by teams of engineers in an expensive and slow process. That is finally changing.

I should add that this hiring of Stratolaunch’s former president is another indication that Stratolaunch might be in trouble.

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Stratolaunch to use Orbital ATK’s Pegasus rocket

The competition heats up? Vulcan Aerospace and Orbital ATK announced today that they are renewing their partnership, using Pegasus in conjunction with Stratolaunch to put satellites into orbit.

Under a multiyear “production-based partnership,” the companies said, Orbital ATK will provide “multiple” Pegasus XL air-launch rockets to be used with the Stratolaunch aircraft, which, when completed, will have the largest wingspan of any plane ever built.

With the Pegasus XL rockets, the Stratolaunch aircraft will be able to launch small satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds, according to the firms’ joint statement released Thursday. Pegasus rockets already have done this kind of work: Orbital ATK has used them to launch satellites from the belly of its Stargazer aircraft.

This deal suggests to me that Vulcan Aerospace has a problem. It couldn’t find anyone to build a large rocket for Stratolaunch and this deal was therefore conjured up to paper over this problem. First , it appears that the reason Orbital ATK originally backed out was that they didn’t want to build the new rocket. Maybe they had engineering concerns. Maybe they were worried about cost or management. Regardless, they didn’t want to build it.

Second, using Stratolaunch with Pegasus seems pointless if the satellite weigh is still limited to only 1,000 pounds. That’s the payload capacity of Pegasus using Orbital ATK’s L-1011 Stargazer airplane. Why bother switching to Stratolaunch if the giant plane doesn’t give you any benefits?

Thus, it appears to me that what has happened is that Vulcan needed some rocket to use with Stratolaunch so that they could squelch the rising doubts about the company. This deal gives them that. It also probably gives Orbital ATK some extra cash to get them to agree to do it.

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Firefly shuts down

More details have been released by the shut down of operations at Firefly Space Systems.

They have furloughed all their employees, having lost one of their major investors. According to the company, the investor did not pull out because of the company’s litigation with Virgin Galactic, but because of its own internal considerations. The article also includes hints that Firefly might be one of the options that Vulcan Aerospace is looking at for building the rocket that its giant airplane Stratolaunch will launch.

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Stratolaunch loses top executive

Today it was revealed that Vulcan Aerospace, the company building Stratolaunch, is losing one of its top executives.

Aerospace veteran Chuck Beames is leaving his post as president of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s spaceflight company, Vulcan Aerospace. Word of Beames’ departure came from Allen in an internal email that was sent to Vulcan employees and obtained by GeekWire today. Allen said Jean Floyd, the CEO of Vulcan’s Stratolaunch Systems, will expand his role to become Vulcan Aerospace’s interim executive director as well.

Allen’s email, which you can read in its entirety at the link, also called Orbital ATK “a valued partner.” The last we had heard of this partnership, however, was that Orbital ATK had backed out of it. Allen’s email instead suggests that some renegotiations are going on, and the partnership is not quite dead.

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What is happening with Stratolaunch?

Doug Messier at his website Parabolic Arc today asks some pertinent questions about Stratolaunch and their seeming inability to settle on the rocket that will be launched from the giant plane they are building.

After going through SpaceX and Orbital ATK, the company talked to anyone and everyone with a rocket engine or an idea for one. They must have hit pay dirt with someone. [emphasis in original]

As Messier notes, both SpaceX and Orbital ATK have, in that order, made and then broke their partnership with Stratolaunch. Both companies were supposed to build that rocket, but for unknown reasons decided soon after that they couldn’t do this job. Stratolaunch has since been looking for a third company to build that rocket, but apparently has not found it. This information strongly suggests that the rocket companies found some fundamental engineering or management problems at Stratolaunch that scared them off. These same issues are also making it difficult for Stratolaunch to find a third rocket company.

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Stratolaunch three quarters complete

The competition heats up: Vulcan Aerospace now says that construction of its Stratolaunch airplane, the largest ever to fly, will be completed by the end of this year.

Assembly of the plane is 76 percent complete, with the engines, landing gear and one tail section still to be installed. The plane is expected to be finished before the end of the year. Commercial services are expected to begin before 2020.

They still have not determined the second stage rocket they will use with this mother ship to launch satellites, which leaves me increasingly skeptical about their future. It is very late in the game to still not know this detail.

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Problems at Stratolaunch?

In the heat of competition: Vulcan Aerospace, the company building the giant Stratolaunch airplane designed launch orbital rockets from its underbelly, does not yet have a rocket for this purpose.

Originally that rocket was to be built by SpaceX, but that partnership ended in 2012.

Stratolaunch then contracted out its rocket work to Orbital Sciences Corp. (now Orbital ATK). The company also contracted with Aerojet Rocketdyne for six RL10C-1 rocket engines with an option for six more for use in the launch vehicle’s third stage.

The agreement with Orbital ended without the production of a launch vehicle, with Beames saying the rocket was not economical. Stratolaunch officials said they were reassessing the project in light of the shift in the market recently toward smaller satellites.

In 2015, Beames said that Stratolaunch was examining more than 70 launch vehicles for use with the Stratolaunch aircraft. He indicated that the company might use multiple launch vehicles to serve different payload classes. Beames said the company would announce its launch vehicle strategy in fall 2015, but that time came and went with no announcement. [emphasis mine]

It is very worrisome for them to be hunting for a rocket at this point of design. I am reminded of Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo, which changed engine designs midstream, causing them enormous engineering problems and delays.

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Stratolaunch shifts to the small sat market

The competition heats up: Even as Vulcan Aerospace, the company building the Stratolaunch air-launch system, considers its options for the second stage rocket that it will use, it has decided to shift its focus towards the small satellite market, including cubesats.

In a sense, they are now aiming at the same cubesat/smallsat market that Virgin Galactic wants with its LauncherOne air-launched rocket. Whether they can build a system cheap enough for these small satellites to afford, however, remains the big question. Their shifting focus, like Virgin Galactic’s, does not bode well for them.

Stratolaunch of Huntsville, Alabama, has already gone through two earlier iterations of its launch vehicle. When Stratolaunch unveiled its plans in December 2011, it planned on using a variant of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Less than a year later, though, Stratolaunch announced it was ending that agreement because SpaceX wanted to focus on the standard version of its Falcon 9.

Stratolaunch then teamed with Orbital Sciences Corp., now Orbital ATK, to develop a launch vehicle. That rocket, called Thunderbolt, featured two solid-fuel stages provided by ATK and an upper stage powered by RL-10 engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne. Like the earlier SpaceX design, Thunderbolt was designed to launch medium-class payloads.
Chuck BeamesChuck Beames. Credit: Vulcan Aerospace

Stratolaunch, though, has set that design aside as it seeks to launch smaller satellites, where the company sees a burgeoning market.

One wonders if the cost of building Stratolaunch will be more than this smallsat market can bear.

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Problems at Stratolaunch

In the heat of competition: Stratolaunch and Orbital ATK have quietly parted ways as problems have developed in building Stratolaunch’s giant first stage aircraft.

The company went with a radical engineering idea — using a giant airplane as their first stage — which might turn out great but could just as easily become a disaster and failure. Such ideas are by their nature filled with many unknowns.

In a sense, this story validates SpaceX’s approach to developing new space technology, which is to take known engineering and to upgrade it while refining the production methods for building it to lower costs. With this approach, you lower risks by reducing the number of unknowns you have to deal with.

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Stratolaunch considers multiple rockets for its giant airplane

The competition heats up: Stratolaunch is now considering widening its options for the upper stage that can be attached to its giant airplane.

[Chuck Beames, president of Seattle-based Vulcan Aerospace, the parent company of Stratolaunch Systems] said the interest in alternative launch options is driven by the growing interest in small satellites, for which the current Stratolaunch system is oversized. A smaller vehicle, he said, could be developed more quickly and less expensively. “It takes a more near-term focus on revenue generation,” he said.

Stratolaunch could eventually support several launch vehicles, he said, with varying payload capabilities to serve different customers. “We’ll likely have multiple launch vehicle options,” he said. “Some will be available earlier than others.”

It appears they are revising their launch system airplane into a modular design with a variety of upper stages, depending on customer. Note also the focus on the growing small satellite industry.

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Stratolaunch update

This article about Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch company notes that the payload the system will put in orbit is likely to be less than originally hoped.

Still to be determined are the manned and cargo craft Stratolaunch will eventually send to orbit or even the International Space Station, Beames said. Musk’s SpaceX, an initial partner, is no longer associated with the venture. The rocket produced by Orbital ATK Inc., which replaced SpaceX, will probably be smaller than the medium-lift vehicle with a 6,000 kilogram (13,000-pound) payload that Stratolaunch had initially planned, Beames said. “I think it’s more likely we’ll be targeting a smaller payload class,” Beames said. “We’re not announcing anything on that yet.”

Allen’s company, Vulcan Aerospace, is also demanding that ULA change the name of its new Vulcan rocket, just revealed yesterday.

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